17 Times Someone Won an Oscar for the Wrong Movie

17 Times Someone Won an Oscar for the Wrong Movie

It’s a truth universally accepted that the Oscars doesn’t always (or even often) get it right. While there are some truly head-scratching victors among the ranks of Academy Award winners, it’s also true that Oscar often likes to play catch-up, rewarding filmmakers and actors for late-career work when they probably should have won for something else years or decades back.

Take Angela Bassett, up for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. If she wins, will it be because she truly gave a career-best performance in the Marvel movie? Or will it be, at least in part, a means of making it up to an actress who should’ve won one already? Academy voters sometimes take a long time to see the talent that’s right in front of their faces. And not every classic is recognised immediately.

Oscar history is filled with examples of actors, actresses, and other filmmakers who won the right prize for the wrong movie. Some of these are close decisions; perhaps the film or performance they won for was good, but as good as another in their filmography. And then there are the times people won awards for middling, forgotten movies while indelible work in classic films went ignored.

Judi Dench

Won for: Shakespeare in Love

Should’ve won for: Iris (2001)

Shakespeare in Love is a wonderful movie, and a rare, relatively recent instance of Academy valuing a smart, frothy comedy over something more overtly epic. Judi Dench makes an impression in her few minutes of screen time, as she always does, but in a career of subtle, nuanced performances, it hardly feels like her biggest challenge. There are several other roles that run deeper for the actress (including her portrayal of M in Skyfall), but her performance as author Iris Murdoch, struggling through the stages of Alzheimer’s, 2001’s Iris is a real showcase for her talents. Dench plays both strength and vulnerability with equal power, and her energy and spirit ensure that the film never feels needlessly maudlin or by-the-numbers.

Al Pacino

Won for: Scent of a Woman

Should’ve won for: The Godfather, Part II

Though he received several nominations, Al Pacino’s 1970s golden age didn’t reward him with any actual Oscars. It wasn’t until 1992, and his performance in the all-but-forgotten Scent of a Woman, that the Academy finally recognised Pacino. It’s a fine performance that carries the movie, but by 1993, we were already well on our way to the excessively shouty Pacino we know today. His performance in Heat two years later was better, but his quiet descent in The Godfather, Part II is one of the greatest in American film history.

Denzel Washington

Won for: Training Day

Should’ve won for: Malcolm X

Al Pacino won Best Actor for Scent of a Woman the same year Denzel Washington was up for his turn in Spike Lee’s characteristically unconventional biopic. Washington melts into the role of Malcolm X so fluidly and flawlessly that at times it’s easy to forget that we’re watching a dramatization and not footage from the activist’s life. His edgy performance in Training Day is certainly captivating, but it’s hard to see his win as anything but an Academy mea culpa.

Meryl Streep

Won for: The Iron Lady

Should’ve won for: The Devil Wears Prada

This was the actress’s third Oscar win out of 21 total nominations (so far), so it’s not like she needs a swap out, but I’d skip this award (for a fine performance in an OK movie) in favour of her role as fashion editor and queen bitch Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Priestly could’ve come off as a cardboard villain, but in Streep’s hands, the character takes on nuance and complexity without losing her sharp edges. It might have been impressive if Streep had made the character empathetic, but she does something better: She makes Priestly interesting.

Whoopi Goldberg

Won for: Ghost

Should’ve won for: The Colour Purple

Ghost is great, really, but an impossibly young Whoopi Goldberg carried Spielberg’s depression-era epic just a half-decade prior, convincingly portraying the growing strength of an enslaved girl over years. There’s no comparison, really.

Elizabeth Taylor

Won for: BUtterfield 8

Should’ve won for: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Even Liz Taylor kinda hated BUtterfield 8, a seamy sex worker melodrama whose only real draw is Taylor’s performance itself, which is hardly the best of her career; given that this was the fourth time she was nominated, it feels like a classic case of “let’s just give her an Oscar, any Oscar.” She won a more deserved award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a few years later, but her performance in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years earlier is nearly as worthy. The screenplay muted some of the themes of the Tennessee Williams play, and Maggie’s histrionics might have easily overwhelmed all that was left. Instead Taylor plays it just right, giving a performance that’s appropriately showy but never stagey.

Julianne Moore

Won for: Still Alice

Should’ve won for: Far from Heaven

Moore’s performance in Still Alice, as a linguistics professor coping with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, is Oscar-worthy in the sense that the Academy loves it when people play tragic figures, but the film itself occasionally veers into emotionally manipulative territory. But Far from Heaven, and Moore’s performance in it, are brilliantly subtle. To experience the full measure of her formidable talents as an actress, you can’t do better than this story of repressed longing.

Cate Blanchett

Won for: The Aviator

Should’ve won for: Carol

The Aviator is perfectly fine, but hardly at the top of Martin Scorsese’s filmography. Likewise, Cate Blanchett’s performance as Katherine Hepburn: it’s good, maybe even great, but it always feels like the impersonation it is, and the character’s range is limited. It’s all on the table in Carol, though, with Blanchett giving a subtle, nuanced, but powerful performance that helped win the film a ten-minute standing ovation at Cannes.

Jessica Lange

Won for: Blue Sky

Should’ve won for: Frances

Lange has two Oscars: she won Supporting Actress for Tootsie and Best Actress for Blue Sky. They’re both reasonable choices, though her turn in Tootsie doesn’t make full use of her talents, while Blue Sky sees her give a fine performance in a film that was already largely forgotten by the time the ceremony rolled around. It’s Frances, though, a biopic dealing with troubled, groundbreaking 1930s-era actress Frances Farmer, where Lange really shows what she’s capable of. As written, the movie is excessively sordid, but Lange pours heart and soul into her performance.

Kate Winslet

Won for: The Reader

Should’ve won for: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The little-seen The Reader is good, even if it feels like medicine. I’d suspect that part of Winslet’s win here, out of a career chock-full of brilliant performances, has a lot to do with some of the boxes it ticks — things that the Academy traditionally loved to reward; it’s a Holocaust drama in which Winslet’s character requires various prosthetics. If we had to give her just one career award, there are better choices; her zany turn in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind transforms a character who could’ve come off an another manic pixie dreamgirl into the true heart of that film.

Paul Newman

Won for: The Colour of Money

Should’ve won for: The Hustler

Martin Scorsese’s decades-later sequel to The Hustler is an unsentimental triumph, but it’s not quite the movie the original is. A sordid, complex tale of attempted redemption, everyone in the legendary cast (Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott) is at the absolute top of their game, and the resulting chemistry elevates each of them, none less that Newman, who should’ve won the first time around.

Sandra Bullock

Won for: The Blind Side

Should’ve won for: Gravity

The Blind Side, legitimate white saviour narrative concerns aside, is a fairly conventional sports drama in the uplifting vein, one in which Bullock happens to give a pretty good performance. In Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, though, she carries the entire movie — it’s virtually a one-woman show that would’ve sunk dismally with a less compelling lead performance.

Alfonso Cuarón

Won for: Roma

Should’ve won for: Children of Men

OK, Gravity might be Sandra Bullock’s best single performance, but it’s not director Alfonso Cuarón’s best film — though it is a stunning technical achievement, so we’ll let him keep it. But he also won for 2019’s Roma, which is gorgeous, I’d rather have seen him awarded for Children of Men: not only is the film a complex story of faith and futility that only gets more relevant with age (and as our world grows increasingly existentially awful), it’s also a technical marvel on a level with Gravity, full of impressive and complicated single take sequences (or at least, scenes that appear to be single takes) and seamlessly integrated special effects that serve the plot without being intrusive.

Carol Reed

Won for: Oliver!

Should’ve won for: The Third Man

Oliver is fine as stage-to-screen adaptations go, but slight when it’s not being overlong, not really even cracking the top five in director Carol Reed’s filmography. On the other hand, the seedy, cynical The Third Man is not only one of his best movies, it’s one of the best movies ever made — a twisty, masterful, morally complex noir that delivers juicy performances and is strikingly beautiful in its expressionist influences.

Robert Zemeckis

Won for: Forrest Gump

Should’ve won for: Back to the Future

Look, I know that people love Forrest Gump — apparently alongside Titanic, it’s the Oscar winning the general public loves best but Back to the Future is a much more impressive achievement. A technically flawless crowd-pleaser that does everything right while managing to look like a light sci-fi comedy.

Bette Davis

Won for: Dangerous

Should’ve won for: All About Eve

Even though it’s not her best work, we’ll let Bette Davis keep her Academy Award for Jezebel; it it’s a memorable performance and a bit out of her normal wheelhouse. Dangerous, though? It’s a mostly dull and sentimental melodrama — not terrible, but definitely not worthy of representing Davis’ entire career. All About Eve, on the other hand? One of our greatest motion pictures, with Davis saucily delivering one clever, whip-smart barb after another while also, amazingly, playing a human being.

Morgan Freeman

Won for: Million Dollar Baby

Should’ve won for: The Shawshank Redemption

No one paid much attention to Shawshank when it was released in 1994: it did only OK box office, and won zero of the seven Oscars it was up for (including a Best Actor nomination for Freeman). He should have won; Million Dollar Baby is good, but Shawshank is indelible, and likely the role that he’ll be most remembered for.

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